Have you ever been up in Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), feeling as though your legs weigh a ton? Your arms won’t support you, your chest is collapsed, and your jaws are tight? Wish you had a magic skyhook to pull you up against gravity? Lacking a skyhook or a helper in the ceiling, you’ll have to use your muscles to lift up—actually, to push up—so that you don’t collapse.
It’s worth doing a bit of work, though, to train those muscles. When they’re doing their job, you’ll no longer have to struggle against gravity—instead, your pose will feel light. According to yoga tradition, every cell in your body will benefit from the reverse effects of gravity on your circulatory system. Your heart and lungs will feel spacious rather than compressed, and you’ll be able to savor the quiet introspection that the pose brings.
Ultimately, Sarvangasana’s lift comes from its foundation, most of which is formed by the shoulders and upper arms. Most of the upward push comes from the strength of the muscles in the shoulders and of those that move the shoulder blades. It’s likely that you’re weak in just these areas: Unless you’re a weightlifter or rower, you probably haven’t conditioned your body to push backward with your arms. But with a little informed practice, you can strengthen and coordinate these muscles to work as you want them to.
Understanding Shoulder Extension
Before you start working these areas, it helps to have a clear vision of how the arms and shoulders should be positioned. Think of Sarvangasana and turn it upside down. In a strong and spacious pose, the line from the shoulder to the ankle should be straight up and down, with the upper arm extended behind the body at 90 degrees. This position of the shoulder, with the arm reaching back behind the body, is called shoulder extension.
While the shoulder extension is a crucial element of Sarvangasana, it isn’t something that everyday life requires of us. Therefore, many people don’t have 90 degrees of shoulder extension. When they try to go there, the shoulders roll forward and contribute to the chest’s collapse. You can see this by standing in front of a mirror with your arms by your sides. Slowly reach your arms behind you. As your hands move back and lift away from your buttocks, your shoulders will roll forward and down, drawing the breastbone and front ribs down and making your back ribs bow out behind you.
So how can you train your body to achieve a 90-degree shoulder extension in which your chest is open, your spine is beautifully straight, and the weight of your body soars upward? You start by working the muscles in an “unloaded” position, getting the feel of shoulder extension, while keeping the chest lifted and the shoulders in place without bearing any weight on the arms and shoulders. Again, stand in front of your mirror with your arms by your sides. Notice that if you internally rotate your shoulders—the inner elbow creases turn toward your side waist, and palms face backward—your shoulders move forward and down, while your chest collapses. If you externally rotate your shoulders by turning the palms forward, your chest lifts, the shoulders move back and down, and the shoulder blades pin in against your back ribs—just the position you want when you turn upside down in the pose.
Find Shoulder Stability
Two key sets of muscles create and stabilize the ideal Sarvangasana, and these muscles are the ones that you’ll need to strengthen. The first set, the shoulder’s external rotators, includes the teres minor and the infraspinatus as well as the posterior part of the deltoid. The teres and the infraspinatus originate on the back of the scapula and run across the back of the shoulder to insert at the outer upper humerus (upper arm bone). Their fibers run primarily horizontally, so they have excellent leverage to externally rotate the shoulder. The posterior deltoid, the shield-shaped muscle that forms a cap over the shoulder joint, is the only shoulder extensor that has power and leverage when the shoulder is in 90 degrees of extension. The second set of stabilizing muscles is the rhomboids, which pull the inner border and bottom tip of the shoulder blades toward the spine (downward rotation of the scapula) and help hold them against the rib cage.
So let’s begin working these muscles with an activity that provides light resistance and trains them to coordinate as you need them to. Stand with your back against a wall, heels a foot away from it, and knees bent a little. Keep your hips, shoulders, and head touching the wall, and your lower back on or near it. Notice again: If your palms face the wall (internal shoulder rotation), your chest is probably collapsed. Now turn your palms forward and roll your shoulders toward the wall and down, away from your ears.
Doing all these things, and even pressing your thumbs to the wall, should put almost the whole back of the scapula against the wall, so that it supports the chest and prevents collapse. To strengthen this muscle group isometrically, press the back of your arms and hands into the wall, and keep your lower back and hips from lifting away from it. Working isometrically strengthens the muscles but does not change their length; this is the kind of strength that helps hold body parts in place in yoga poses.
The muscles you used to push your arms back into the wall are the same ones that push into the floor to lift you up in Shoulderstand. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) is an intermediate step between standing at the wall and full Shoulderstand. You can use it to help coordinate this group of muscles and strengthen them more before putting the full weight of your body on them.
To do this, first lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat, arms by your sides with your palms facing up. Externally rotate your arms, pressing the thumb side of the hands into the floor so the outer shoulders press down and the chest opens. Keep pressing your arms down while you roll your spine and back ribs up off the floor. Repeat this action a few times; gradually increase the length of time you hold the pose to 20 or 30 seconds.
Clean Vertical Line
To get this lift and chest opening in Sarvangasana, you’ll work the same way. Even if you’re used to doing the pose in the middle of the room, go to the wall to give yourself stability while working on your arm and shoulder position. To keep your neck from pressing into the floor, stack a few folded blankets with the back edge six to eight inches from the wall. Lie on the blankets with your head on the floor and your torso, arms, and shoulders on the blankets (make sure that your shoulders are on the thickest folded edges). Your hips will be at the wall, your knees bent, and your feet up on the wall. Your arms will be by your sides, palms up.
As you walk your feet up, lifting your hips and back body off the blankets, continue to externally rotate your arms, and keep them parallel to each other. Don’t be in a rush to put your hands on your back. Instead, bend your elbows to 90 degrees (so your forearms are perpendicular to the floor), make a fist with each hand, and press the elbows firmly into the floor. That shoulder action—a push from the posterior deltoid—should lift your back ribs up out of the armpits, bringing the spine to vertical. Now put your hands on your back ribs, keeping your upper arms parallel. If your elbows go wide, you’ll be internally rotating and will lose your ability to press down and lift up. Instead, press your elbows into the blankets, which will help hold your torso in a clean vertical line.
Of course, there are other factors that affect your ability to be vertical in Sarvangasana, including the action of the leg muscles and the flexibility of your neck and shoulders—worthy topics for another column. In the meantime, keep working on the foundation from which you can build a grounded, spacious pose. Let your gaze softly focus on your heart, and your mind, too, will benefit from the pose’s restorative, introspective nature.
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Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon.